Review: 'The Land of Steady Habits'

Friday, September 28, 2018
A still from 'The Land of Steady Habits'.

Stuck Between Stations

2018 / USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Nicole Holofcener / Premiered online on Sept. 14, 2018

by:
Joshua Ray

The title The Land of Steady Habits may be misleading. It suggests portraiture of a menial but well-meaning life, and to some, it reads as pejorative against a perceived life not lived. For filmmaker Nicole Holfcener’s characters, the idea of this state of being actually represents an end-game to the emotional and familial upheaval they are undergoing. Achieving stasis — whether it be emotional, financial, relational, or even physical — is preferred to the purgatorial space they currently inhabit. 

The film’s title is, in fact, a term used for the Connecticut setting in which the characters reside. This northeastern United States milieu is familiar enough to anyone who’s read John Irving or seen films such as Todd Fields’ wonderful In the Bedroom (2001) or Lasse Hallstrom’s less successful E. Annie Proulx adaptation The Shipping News (also 2001). Works like these present sunny autumnal surfaces populated by middle class (usually white) people whose simmering resentments eventually erupt as the season changes into an icy winter. 

Land doesn’t stray far from this common representation, taking place almost entirely during a wintry holiday season in which its central character, “retired” financial trader Anders Harris (Ben Mendelsohn), attempts to navigate his newfound singlehood. Much has been made about Land being Holfcener’s first foray into a male-centric story. While her adaptation — also a first for the writer-director — of Ted Thompson’s novel of the same name doesn’t preclude critiques of masculinity, Anders is a character who fits in snugly with the female self-destruction that is front and center in the director’s previous works such as Walking and Talking (1996), Please Give (2010), and Enough Said (2013). 

Anders’ floundering and posturing are best characterized by an early scene with his therapist, Howard (Victor Williams). The patient reluctantly reveals he smoked PCP-laced pot at a friend’s party with a group of teenagers, one of whom, Charlie (Charlie Tahan), survives an overdose shortly thereafter. After Howard confirms his own presence at said party, he confronts Anders about his actions. Anders sees this as an interpersonal setup, chastising Howard with “Way to bury the lede,” before justifying his actions and rejecting any blame for them. He then storms off, stealing a stack of his counselor’s coffee table books. 

This range of reactionary forcefulness allows Mendelsohn — a supreme performer in danger of being typecast as the insidious villain he’s played so well in films as disparate as Killing Them Softly (2012) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) — to perform in shades of grey. His Anders is both a victim and perpetrator of a patriarchal machine keen on masculine authority alongside financial dominance, a system at the fore of Holofcener’s criminally underrated Friends with Money (2006). Anders has been chewed up and spit out by that system, but his self-deprecating charm and wit have kept him afloat when he’s been all but ostracized by the society that surrounds him. 

Those impossible standards create other victims, too, as Land becomes an ensemble piece about personal actions and their consequences within a community. The strength and temperament of Helene (Edie Falco), Anders’ ex-wife, are consistently tested by the men in her life: Anders himself; their 27-year-old slacker son, Preston (Thomas Mann); and her live-in fiancé, Donny (Bill Camp), who happens to be a former colleague of her ex-husband. There’s an analogous family, the Ashfords, in the Harris’ social circle. Never without glasses of red wine in their Home and Garden-ready estate, Sophie (Elizabeth Marvel) and Mitchell (Michael Gaston) are also contending with a burnout son, the perpetually high Charlie. 

The film undergoes a jarring shift in the third act, when when a character makes a ghoulish discovery. Scenes of confrontation and revelation, scored to maudlin orchestral cues, undermine Land’s already precarious serio-comic tone, and the acute behavioral nuances of the characterizations dissipate. With this descent into overwrought American Beauty (1999) territory, the film begins to manifest its own existential crisis as if to mimic its characters’, but in ways that become increasingly obvious and devoid of the care with which Holofcener is commonly — and rightfully — associated. 

She is a director whose critical esteem has risen with each subsequent film. Holofcener also has many for-hire television directing credits to her name — as many women directors in Hollywood do for the sake of survival — between her all-too-infrequent, modestly-scaled big screen work. To its detriment, Land feels like the first feature she’s made in a more staid televisual style. Never one for cinematic pyrotechnics, she nevertheless crafts films that have always been involving and imbued with a lived-in sensibility. However, save for some choice camera movements (such as in its opening shot), the filmmaker's latest feature arrives feeling hastily directed and sloppily edited. 

Still, Holofcener’s talent for assembling a grade-A cast is on full display here. Falco buttresses her character’s strong will with her innate performer’s power. Marvel plays the polar opposite of of the nebbish sister in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), but with the same sensitivity she showcased there. Connie Britton gives Barbara, the single empty-nester who may be the only shining light for the depressed and impotent Anders, equal parts resolve and resiliency. Even with its milquetoast aesthetic and tonal inconsistencies, these players in their prime make The Land of Steady Habits a worthy place to visit. 

Rating: C+

[Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]